An environmental campaigner who brought a legal challenge over the climate impact of onshore oil production has applied to take her case to the final court in the UK.
Sarah Finch has previously argued at the High Court and the Court of Appeal that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in September 2019 when it granted planning permission for production and more wells at the Horse Hill oil site near Horley.
She announced today she was now seeking permission to go to the Supreme Court.
Her case centred on the council’s failure to assess the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from burning the extracted oil in cars and planes – known as the downstream or indirect emissions.
She argued that the council should have considered the emissions likely to result from burning an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of oil from the Horse Hill wells over the next 20 years.
The council said it needed only to consider the emissions resulting from the operation of the site.
Last month, appeal court judges were split over the issue.
One judge, Lord Justice Moyland, allowed her appeal. He said the council’s failure to consider downstream emissions meant the environmental impact assessment (EIA) which accompanied the planning application did not comply with the regulations and was unlawful.
The other judges, Lord Lewison and Sir Keith Lindblom, dismissed her case. They ruled that the council acted lawfully in arguing that the downstream emissions were not an effect of the development and did not need assessment.
Sarah Finch said today:
“I remain convinced that Surrey County Council was wrong to allow 20 years oil production during a climate emergency without considering the effects of the burning of that oil as a significant indirect impact.
“Given that a senior judge agreed with me in the Appeal Court, I feel this needs clarifying by the highest court in the land.”
She said the case raises points of law of public importance. The Appeal Court majority ruling means that other local authorities can grant planning permission for oil and gas production without considering the climate impact in the EIA.
If her case is accepted by the Supreme Court, she intends to argue the Appeal Court was wrong to conclude that intermediate processes, between the extraction and eventual burning of oil, meant that downstream emissions were not environmental effects to be assessed.
She will also say the Appeal Court was also wrong to leave this issue to planning judgement, rather than make it a principle of law. And the court was wrong to focus on how the Horse Hill project was defined, rather than the environmental consequences.
Ms Finch will also argue that there was a contradiction in the Appeal Court’s ruling that the downstream emissions were material considerations, but not indirect environmental effects.
Rowan Smith, an environmental law solicitor at Leigh Day, who represented Ms Finch, said:
“Given three Court of Appeal judges cannot agree unanimously about whether Surrey County Council acted lawfully, and owing to the importance of the issues at stake for the future of the climate, it is only right for our client to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. We hope that, in the process, the law can be clarified.”
Last month, the parent company of the Horse Hill site, UK Oil & Gas plc, welcomed the Appeal Court’s ruling. Its chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, said five judges have found against Ms Finch’s case:
“one cannot help but wonder why they have been permitted so many repeated bites at the same legal cherry. That seems at very least unfair and perhaps is also somewhat unjust.”